The Uribistas celebrate on the floor of Colombia’s House. (Picture from Semana.)
Only a month ago, Colombian politics watchers believed that the referendum to allow President Ãlvaro Uribe’s reelection was dead. A month of political strong-arm tactics revived it, and yesterday it cleared what might end up having been its biggest hurdle. Colombia’s House of Representatives, by a vote of 85-5, approved the referendum bill, sending it to Uribe for his signature.
Despite appearances, this was a very, very close nail-biter of a vote. Colombia’s House has 166 members. The entire opposition stayed out of the chamber – whether to abstain, to prevent the arrival at a quorum necessary for a vote, or both. The bill needed 84 votes to pass and only got 85. Not a ringing endorsement, but enough to gain full congressional approval.
Members of opposition parties insist that the needed votes were only gained through offers of political favors, like the ability to choose the next occupants of key government posts. “What has happened in the Congress is an embarrassment because every kind of corruption has been seen,” said former MedellÃn Mayor and independent presidential candidate Sergio Fajardo. Liberal Party presidential candidate Rafael Pardo, a former defense minister, charged today that recent shifts of mid-level positions in the national prison system may have been the result of such backroom dealing on behalf of the referendum.
The next obstacle the referendum faces is Colombia’s Constitutional Court, which must rule on the constitutionality of the law and the process by which it was approved. There is no fixed period for how long this process must take; El Tiempo estimates about 80 days, but also includes a chart of possible timetables that could have the court’s ruling as early as mid-November or as late as next April, a month before the May 30 presidential elections.
The Uribe government would ideally want to schedule the referendum before December – less than three months from now. A vote during Colombia’s long holiday period (mid-December to mid-January) is impossible, and after that, much focus will be on the March congressional elections.
El Tiempo discusses another, more chaotic possibility: holding the referendum at the same time as the March legislative elections, in the same balloting. This could happen if the pro-Uribe-majority Congress passes legislation changing a few deadlines – including the date by which Uribe would officially have to declare himself a candidate (currently November 30). If this strategem succeeds, Colombia could effectively be treated to a two-month-long presidential campaign: one that begins with a March 2009 referendum on whether Uribe can run, and ends with the May 2009 election.
All this assumes, though, that the Constitutional Court – once it rules – will rule in favor of allowing the referendum to go ahead. This is not a certainty. The list of procedural problems with the law is long, as this enumeration by Colombia’s El Nuevo Siglo newspaper makes clear. A former constitutional court justice, Clara InÃ©s Vargas, told several Colombian radio outlets earlier today that the court’s approval would be difficult to obtain. However, the majority of the current court’s justices are now Uribe appointees, so things could be different now.